Pop

Still Tears Left to Cry: How Ariana Grande Is Defying Pop-Star Conventions About Showing Pain and Sadness

Ariana Grande
 Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/Getty Images

Ariana Grande performs "No Tears Left To Cry" on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on May 1, 2018.

Ariana Grande's eventful year shows that pop stars are expected to be triumphant at all times, unless their pain is packaged for the public's consumption.

A few days before the release of “No Tears Left to Cry,” Ariana Grande invited a journalist from British Vogue into her home. He complimented her performance at One Love Manchester; she began, immediately, to cry. Less than a year had passed since a suicide bomber had claimed 22 lives and injured hundreds more. Among the dead were a number of young children. And so, knees to her chest, eyeliner bleeding down her cheeks, she cried.

Then, Grande did something she does quite often: She apologized for crying.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, again and again. Sorry for making her interviewer uncomfortable. Sorry for talking about her own pain, and in so doing, pulling focus from the victims and their families. Sorry for the mere fact of the salt staining her skin.

Eventually, she sprang to her feet, dried her eyes and marched across the room to her stereo. Her upcoming single flooded the room, its message clear: There would be no more crying today.

For many a pop artist, victim-to-victory positivity is simply a common songwriting trope. For Grande, responding to despair with hope is nothing less than a moral imperative. As she moves through the murky aftermath of the bomber’s violence, her duty, she's said, is “being a light.” True to her word, and despite an onslaught of personal hardship, Grande has flown through her annus horribilis with every pore open, doing her best to vanquish darkness and give back, in her own words, everything it stole. She’s weathered the death of a beloved former partner, the indignity of being blamed for his passing and the very public disintegration of a new love. Too often, though, her striving at being a light has meant eliding even the most benign expressions of grief. Crying is a normal, healthy response to trauma, not a cause for concern. So why does Grande feel the need to apologize for her tears?

In her 2014 essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” the author Leslie Jamison coined the phrase “post-wounded” to describe a modern shift, among female authors, away from melodramatic affect and toward suppression of sadness. “These women are aware that ‘woundedness’ is overdone and overrated,” writes Jamison, and wary that “postures of pain play into limited and outmoded conceptions of womanhood.” They’d rather not make their pain known; they’d rather die than play victim. “There’s a Wild West stoicism to these women,” wrote the critic Emily Nussbaum in a 2010 piece about how television heroines respond to trauma, “like cowboys who shrug off a beating.”

At root, though, the post-wounded stance is sculpted by shame and outside judgment. Implicit in the cultural shift from the language of victimhood to that of survival is the notion that women must respond to pain by resisting it. Anything less is tantamount to moral failure. And ultimately, this post-wounded mandate on resilience may be more restrictive than plain old woundedness. “This motif of a tough woman who tries to power through her trauma,” writes Nussbaum, is “a notion by now as fetishized as any notion of fragility.”

Listen carefully to Ariana Grande’s recent work, and you’ll find a stout, Jamisonian determination to place wounds in the past. In “thank u, next,” an ex-boyfriend taught her pain, and she learned from him. When pain arrives, she handles it and moves on. Or at least tries to: She's barely a year removed from a world-shattering trauma, three months removed from the death of a loved one and two months removed from a broken engagement, yet the public has unfairly pushed her into a position where she feels like she's failed if she's anything less than happy. 

Consider the day in September, mere weeks after Mac Miller’s death, when Grande took to Twitter and wrote, “can i have one okay day” and “i’m so fucking tired pls.” This seemed to be an eminently reasonable expression of the fatigue that accompanies grief. And yet, the press -- the very same press which had lauded her for her resilience, her courage, her toughness -- had a field day: “Ariana Grande Has A Mini Emotional Breakdown on Twitter.” “Tired Ariana Grande Says She Doesn’t Deserve Love in Twitter Breakdown.” “Ariana Grande Seriously Worries Fans After Posting A Bunch of Depressing Tweets. “Fans Are Concerned That Ariana Grande’s Recent Tweets Are A Cry for Help.” The public outcry grew so intense that Grande deleted the tweets and issued a public apology to her fans: "it’s just been a tough month. i’m trying to get my work done and get back to normal and it’s hard and i’m human and tired. sorry i let u in or worried u. i shouldn’t have tweeted. i kno better."

It’s easy to see why, in particular times of tragedy, Grande removes herself from social media. “A wound marks the threshold between interior and exterior,” writes Jamison. “Privacy is violated in the making of the wound, a rift in the skin, and by the act of peering into it.” This effect is only magnified when the wound in question belongs to a celebrity, when millions of people are peering into the wound, when some spectators are less motivated by empathy than by cruelty.

But taking time to heal in privacy is one thing; being forced to perform wellness is quite another. In May of 2017, in the immediate wake of the Manchester Arena bombing, Grande’s manager, Scooter Braun, flew to her home and told her, “We need to get a concert and get back out there.” (Braun later said he knew the request was “unfair” to Grande.)

Though she initially refused him -- “I can never sing these songs again,” she said; “I can’t put on these outfits” -- Grande reversed course within days, mounted a star-studded benefit, and raised £10 million for the British Red Cross. Vulture named the concert the best of the year, calling Grande’s performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” delivered through tears, “one of the defining moments of her career.” The Telegraph declared that “everything she did radiated sensitivity and emotion … [she] responded with a fortitude and love for her fans that has been inspirational.” Compare this enthusiastic praise to the intense scrutiny of those “can i just have one okay day” tweets, and one thing becomes clear. Grande’s sadness is gorgeous on a stage, in a spotlight; in the quiet, mundane light of day, it’s uncomfortable, even ugly.

As Grande prepares to release what she calls a "not particularly uplifting" new album, her listeners should understand that she is a long way from post-wounded. “Wounds,” writes Jamison, “exist en media res: the cause of injury is in the past, but the healing isn’t done.” The memory of Manchester will hurt for a long time. The death of Miller, despite her efforts to encourage him into rehabilitation, will also hurt for a long time. The end of her relationship with Davidson, about whom she wrote a song which included the word “happy” 24 times, and the subsequent loss of that happiness-to-the-power-of-24? That will hurt. And Grande hasn’t failed herself -- or any of the people who listen to her -- if, on occasion, she’s sad.

Ariana Grande has proven her strength beyond a shadow of a doubt. Doesn’t she deserve to be weak, too?